In my work as a development communications consultant, the relationship between mass media and good governance is often debated. Does a free press help improve governance and reduce corruption? Does the presence of a pluralistic media make the government more accountable?
The common view in the media development community is “yes”. But over the years it has struck me how often theses assertions are followed up by the phrase “studies have shown…”
What do these studies actually show? And are those outside academic circles aware of the full findings?
Those initial questions became the starting point for a report I wrote and recently had published for the US think tank the Center for International Media Assistance. In it I have summarised the work of 11 leading academics. My aim was to distil some of the fundamental debates about the relationship between the media and the state – debates that have been raging since the Enlightenment – in a brief and accessible way.
When I looked more deeply at some of the most quoted texts on media and governance there were a few surprises.
Amartya Sen, for example, is often quoted as saying that famines never happen in countries with a free press. In fact what he says is that countries with a free press and a well-functioning electoral system with viable opposition parties have not had major famines – a rather more nuanced statement.
The first challenge was deciding who to include. To get the ball rolling I contacted the wide network of colleagues and friends in the media development field that I have built up over the years. I received a fantastic response – 95 writers in all were suggested, along with numerous links to papers and websites.
I was intrigued to find out which writers and papers would come out on top. Would it be Amartya Sen? Or Reinnika and Svensson with their oft-quoted study showing a correlation between newspaper circulation and reduced corruption in Ugandan schools? Or perhaps Allen, Putzel and Stremlau who suggest that templates for media assistance do not work in crisis states?
The names with the most ‘votes’ were: Pippa Norris (8), Amartya Sen (5), Shanthi Kalathil (5), Monroe Price (4) and Guy Berger (4).
I was slightly surprised that the list didn’t include more empirical studies. Rather, what emerged was a list of more general writers and thinkers on the topic of democracy and governance and those who have theorised about the role of the media rather than ‘proved’ something on the ground. This might be because people tend to remember the names of editors of collected volumes and of people who speak on, and make a career about, a topic, rather than the less famous team of researchers who have done the work on the ground. For example economists, agriculturalists, health experts and so on, who have chosen – perhaps as a one-off – to include a media element in their work.
So I decided to include more of a spread of dissenting and developing-country perspectives and to concentrate on real-life empirical studies where possible, and in the end I didn’t choose by the number of votes alone.
My final ‘who’s who’ of academics in this field is:
- Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel prize-winning economist from India and currently the Thomas W. Lamont university professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University). He is one of the most quoted academics on the positive effects of a free media.
- Dr Timothy Besley and Dr Robin Burgess, both economists from the London School of Economics (LSE). Their study of government responsiveness to food crises in India from 1958-1992 found that “those [Indian] states that have higher levels of media development are also more responsive (on average) in terms of public food distribution and calamity relief expenditure.”
- Dr Ritva Reinikka, a Finnish economist and director of the Human Development Group in the Africa Region of the World Bank, and Dr Jakob Svensson, a Swedish economics professor at the Institute of International Economic Studies (IIES), Stockholm. They are well-known for a study in Uganda that shows the importance of newspapers in reducing corruption by officials at the local level.
- Professor Pippa Norris, an Anglo-American academic and currently McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University). Her research compares elections and public opinion, political communications and gender politics. She states that “countries where much of the public has access to the free press usually have greater political stability, rule of law, government efficiency… regulatory quality, and the least corruption”
- Dr Tim Allan, professor of development anthropology at the LSE, Dr James Putzel, professor of development studies at the Crisis States Research Centre, LSE, and Dr Nicole Stremlau, coordinator for the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford. These three academics have questioned the prevailing wisdom that media freedoms should be an essential aspect of peace-building in war-torn crisis states
- Professor Francis Nyamnjoh, professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His views on the African media are far from optimistic. He talks of “African journalism in ethical crisis” and calls for a “broader definition of democracy” better aligned with African realities
- Professor Guy Berger, UNESCO director of freedom of expression and media development. His work draws attention to some of the specifics of Africa that challenge prevailing assumptions about civil society and the way democratic processes do, and do not, work.
So, does the existence of a free media increase accountability and reduce corruption? The short answer is: “It depends”. There is no easy answer. But I hope that in summing up the main arguments I have provided a wide range of views that will give the reader the chance to draw their own conclusions on the relationship between the media and government.
And if there are any academics or experts that you think add a new dimension to the debate, please leave a comment. I would be interested to hear from you.